The downward-facing dog is one of yoga’s postures that you practice or teach numerous times every class, possibly.
The downward-facing dog pose resembles a dog stretching with its head and forelegs down and its back legs up, hence the name. When you feel exhausted, an extended stay in this pose removes fatigue and brings back the lost energy.
This is an exhilarating pose. It is said to have more beneficial effects, but it can invite unnecessary tension in the body when practised with incorrect alignment. Therefore downward-facing dog becomes a drained pose.
If you feel resistance in your hamstrings, strain your shoulders and stomach, and your breathing feels shallow while practising downward-facing dog, consider practising it with the Critical Alignment Yoga (CAY) approach. Everybody carries tension due to our preferential habitual postures. The tension in the superficial movements muscles brings immobility in the vertebrae and joints.
There is where the tools of Critical Alignment Yoga come in to dissolve tension, restore mobility and stimulate body awareness. Through that, body awareness breaks up the habitual preferential posture and movement habits.
In addition, The 11 connections and movement chains of CAY bring the practitioners to a better understanding of how to build asanas (yoga poses) with the proper communication between the different body parts (legs, head, neck, upper and lower back) to accomplish the full range of movements.
Connections between these various body parts allow smaller movements to be passed on like links in a chain. Correspondingly, connections that do not function adequately hinder small movements, preventing proper completion of the entire range of motion. This can be caused by tension and stiffness in the vertebrae, joints and muscles.
The optimal functioning of connections depends on precise alignment
Adho Mukha Svanasana I is coordination-wise a challenging pose. The upper and lower back extension is vital in the downward-facing dog. The lower back, pelvis, and hips form the highest point of the body in this pose, and as such, the pelvis and hips are not loaded with the body’s weight. That can become a disadvantage because the muscles are not required to hold the body up as in Utkatasana (chair pose).
In addition, the extension of the upper and lower back is often displaced due to overextension in the shoulders, or the lower and upper back lengthening is compromised, striving to stretch the legs. The overextension in the shoulders in the long term will destabilize the shoulder girdle.
It is essential to remember that preferential movements may become strengthened rather than questioned. However, because the lower back is minimally engaged and no particular flexibility is necessary for this asana, it can be practised easily. But it takes a lot of awareness to complete with the correct coordination.
In addition, many connections (CAY connections and movement chains concept) can fall apart in this pose – notably, the inner tube; the connection between the lower back, hips and legs; and the connection between the arms and the shoulder blades.
How To Downward- Facing Dog
•Your starting position begins on all fourth (on hands and knees on the floor). This is the most accessible starting position for beginners. To eliminate incorrect coordination patterns, moving slowly, carefully, and with constant attention is essential when practising downward-facing dog.
• Place your arms shoulder-width, and spread your fingers while your thumbs are 6 inches apart.
•Place your knees under your hips; your feet should be hip-width with your toes tucked on the floor.
•Relax your hamstrings so that your sit bones move upward and your lower back relaxes and moves downward (inward)
•Allow your upper back to be straight using the relaxation of your lower back and align the back of your neck with your upper back
•Pull your lower ribs in and hold them in this neutral position by lightly contracting your upper abdominal muscles.
• Pull the area below your navel upward. The column between your diaphragm and lower abdomen becomes active, which means your inner core is connected.
•Relax your upper back to connect your arms with your shoulder blades by pressing your shoulders lightly in the direction of your shoulder blades.
•Make sure to keep your upper back deep and straight, and the muscles in your shoulders girdle totally relaxed as you lift your knees and start to carry your weight with your arms.
Mobility depends on the flexibility of the joints and the spinal column
•Slowly start to lengthen your sit bones up to the ceiling, and do not allow your core to relax. This keeps your inner core stable.
•Keeping your knees bent will relax your hamstrings and help keep your sit bones in the same upward position.
At the same time, your arms are moving toward their end position, where your arms and shoulder blades lock into your ribs. As a result, your shoulders are low, your elbows are high, and there is pressure on the inside edge of your hands.
•When your trunk has finished the movement, slowly straighten your legs without losing your spine alignment.
To lengthen your upper back, push your hands and hips away from each other as far as you can.
•Relax your forefoot and ankles, allowing your heels to move toward the floor.
•Breathing from your abdomen to your chest will keep your breathing relaxed and deep. Allowing your back to broaden on the in-breath and to narrow on the out-breath.
•Hold the end position for 10 breaths; as you progress, you can prolong the hold. Again, observe your breathing, sensations, calmness and space.
•Do not bring your chin to your chest. Instead, keep the image of lengthening your whole spine, including the neck vertebrae and legs, in your mind’s eye.
Keeping the legs bent makes it much easier to practice downward-facing dog.
Also, this will keep your hamstrings relaxed and extended.
Issues and Connections
1.- If your hands and arms are too far apart, it will be difficult for your arms to connect correctly with your shoulder blades and upper back. As a result, the shoulders will bend deeply or be lifted towards your ears, causing your trapezius muscles to contract and create tension.
The connection between arms, shoulder blades and back
The arms connect effortlessly with the shoulder blades when the upper back is extended. This allows the weight of the arms to transfer easily into the lower back and prevents overload to the shoulders. If this connection does not function properly, it will put too much strain on the shoulders, upper back, and chest.
Practice this to learn how to connect your arms
•Lie vertically on a double-folded yoga strip or make a firm roll 10 inches thick and 18 inches long (sheet or towel) if you do not have a yoga strip.
Place the end of the strip or the roll in the middle of your back between your shoulder blades and not lower than your shoulder blade tips. Allow your back to become heavy and relax.
When your back straightens, it gives your shoulder blades more room, and they can descend toward the floor. Try to maintain your shoulders low. Hold a belt shoulder-width apart, and lift your arms toward the ceiling.
•Place your feet and knees hip-width apart.
•Stretch your arms and pull lightly on the belt. Then, slowly bring your arms over your head while keeping your back relaxed. The final position of your arms will be determined by the shape of your back.
For example, if your back is bent, your elbows will bend, and your arms will end up in a diagonal line above the floor. But if your back is straight, then the connection of your upper arms with your shoulder blades will
create an end to the movement, and your arms will end up in line with your shoulders perpendicular just above the floor.
•Keep your arms in the end position for 5 to 10 seconds breaths to build strength in your triceps.
•Then raise them slowly toward the ceiling. Repeat this movement three times to observe and feel this connection.
Having the strip or the roll behind your back supports the space in your chest and makes it possible to connect your arms.
Again, this should be present when performing the downward-facing dog.
Pulling your shoulders or rips up during the movement of your arms will cause the connection to fall apart, causing your neck to downsize into your shoulders and the space in your chest to collapse. I see this compensation movement in beginners in the downward-facing dog.
Move slowly and observe your breathing
2.-Lifting your ribs causes your breathing to remain restricted in your chest and makes you pull your shoulders up but pulling your ribs too low makes chest breathing almost impossible and creates tension in the lower back and abdomen.
This occurs in many asanas and, thus, in downward-facing dog too. This compensation movement shatters the senses of space and relaxation in the chest and abdomen. By practising this connection, you learn how to keep this connection vivid in your practice.
The connection between the sternum and the inner tube
Lie on the floor with a yoga strip placed horizontally under your lower back, or lie flat.
Don’t push your lower back into the floor.
•Lift your ribs as much as possible and feel how your stomach falls inward toward your lower back.
This is a compensation movement that occurs unconsciously in many asanas when you are confronted with stretch, strength and resistants.
•Allow your ribs to come down and feel how your stomach rises. Feel the difference in your breathing.
When your ribs are raised, your breath stalls in the lower part of your chest. Abdominal breathing can be resumed
as soon as your ribs are lowered.
Aligning the position of your lower back and lower ribs results in a firm feeling in the column between your ribs and lower abdomen, into which you can breathe freely.
This connection lengthens your lower back in all exercises that should be neutral, such as inversions, standing poses and seated poses.
The position of the pelvis
If you tilt your pelvis backwards (tuck your tailbone in), the lumbar vertebrae L4 and L5 are pushed out, and the arch of your lower back will lose its neutral position.
Do the following exercises to experiment with the ideal position of your pelvis and the activation of your inner tube.
•Lie on the floor with a yoga strip placed horizontally under your lower back or lie flat. Don’t push your lower back into the floor.
•Press with your fingertips into the fold where your legs end and your abdomen begins in the frontal part of your hips by your pelvis.
•Lift and stretch your legs
•Slowly lower your legs to the floor without losing contact between your lower back and the strip.
If you feel this, stop lowering your legs. To keep your pelvis in position, use your lower stomach muscles.
If lowering the legs is easy for you, you feel under your fingers an increase of strength in your outer core between your pubic bone and ribs and the extension in the front of your hips.
Stop the movement when your legs are about half an inch from the floor. Remain in this position for 3 to 5 breaths. Keep breathing into your stomach despite the effort of your stomach muscles.
When you do not release the upward pull of the area below your navel, your transverse abdominals remain active; they are postural muscles.
As a result, your inner tube does not need much strength, making breathing easier. This connection keeps your inner tube and lower back stable and should be present in many asanas.
Try this one if you find the previous exercise hard to do. This activates the “hara” centre of gravity.
•Lie prone with your forehead resting on your forearms.
The base of your sternum is effortless and relaxed, making contact with your stomach. Your lower abdomen should make contact with the floor. Relax the muscles of your lower back so it can move inward and extend.
•Push your lower abdomen toward the floor. This slight movement will increase the strength of the neutral arch of your lower back.
•Stretch your knees and lift your feet off the floor to intensify the *Multifidus* muscles and the neutral movement of your lower back, keeping your heels outwardly rotated.
If you push your pubic bone instead of your lower abdomen toward the floor, your lower back will rise, and your L4 and L5 will be pushed out, causing the lower back loses its neutral position.
The multifidus muscle is tasked with lower spine stability, a weak multifidus muscle destabilizes the spine and provides less support to the individual vertebra. This puts pressure on muscles and connective tissues between and adjacent to the spinal column, increasing the risk of lower back pain.
Read more here: https://www.verywellhealth.com/multifidus-muscle-296470
Improve the lengthening of your lower back
3.- Bending the lower back during downward-facing dog is also a significant compensation movement for beginners or practitioners with stiffness in the lower back and hamstrings.
This compensation also causes tension in the abdomen, chest, shoulders and neck (see the first video above).
As I mentioned, the lower back extension is vital in the downward-facing dog. The following exercises help stretch your lower back and bring movement in the lumbar vertebrae so that the connection between the lower back, pelvis and legs can be achieved in this asana and other poses.
The connection between the lower back, pelvis and legs
When the movement muscles of the lower back are stiff, the vertebrae L1, L2, L3, L4 and L5 can not perform an inward movement (hollow shape) anymore.
Therefore the distribution of body weight from the diaphragm downward can not be passed through the midline of the lumbar spine into the pelvis. This also happens when the lower back is too hollow. In addition, the lower back becomes unstable.
Critical Alignment Yoga divides the lower back into the upper part, the L1, L2, and L3 vertebrae and the lower region consisting of L4, L5 and the sacral vertebra S1. Therefore, I will describe only one exercise to stretch the upper part of the lower back.
Release tension in the lower back
•Make a thing roll approx. 4 to 5 inches thick from a felt mat or a sheet
•Place the roll horizontally on the floor behind you and hold it with your hands
•Lean on your elbows, bringing the roll precisely between your pelvis and lower ribs
•Bend your knees and bring your feet and knees hip-width apart
•Lift your pelvis up and keep the lower back in contact with the roll. Lie down and place your hands on your lower ribs.
•Remain in this position for 1 minute.
Become conscious of your breathing.
•Start lowering your pelvis slowly to the floor. Try to accept the pressure but do not force the downward movement of your pelvis. Try to relax by directing your exhalations to the area where you feel the pressure.
If your lower back is very stiff, it can become sore when doing it for the first time. The discomfort may be caused by the lower back’s superficial movement muscles or deeper tissue structures.
It is a good signal, though. It means the muscles and the vertebrae are releasing the tension. However, if the intense sensation remains after a couple of minutes and you find yourself resisting and tense, make the roll an inch or two smaller.
In the downward-facing dog stabilization occurs through the inner core
You will experience the lower back accepting the pressure and the stretch more quickly after long practice. After a while, consider incorporating this movement into your daily routine.
Notice that this is just a short explanation. You’ll find all exercises in the book of my teacher, Gert van Leeuwen “Yoga: Critical Alignment: Building a Strong, Flexible Practice through Intelligent Sequencing and Mindful Movement”.
Insightful book to have if you are a yoga teacher, a beginner and even if you have been practising for many years.
Enhance your body’s mobility and deepen body awareness
Extending the stretch to include relaxation of the lower back, the muscles around the sacrum, and hip flexors by pulling your knees one by one toward your navel.
•Keeping the pelvis on the floor, place a belt under your right knee or hold it with your hands.
•Pull your knee slowly toward your navel, and your right floor will lift up.
Do not contract any muscles of your lower back and hip flexors. Instead, use the strength of your arms and hands only. This movement stretches your lower back. You will feel resistance in your hip and, sometimes, in the sacroiliac; therefore, you must move slowly.
When this resistance dissolves by moving slowly and practising more often, the pelvic part of your back Lumbar vertebrae L4, L5 and the SI joint will develop more freedom of movement.
Come on your hands and knees to feel what the roll has done for your lower back.
•Relax your hamstrings and allow your sit bones to move upward. Now your lower back can relax and move inward.
Your lower back probably feels overextended due to the roll and the complete relaxation of your hamstrings. Use that extension to pull your lower ribs towards your abdomen to connect your inner core.
Your ribs are now in a neutral position. Keep them that way, and your lumbar vertebrae stretch when you develop the downward dog.
The following and final exercises show how the legs should move in relation to your pelvis.
This connection/movement plays an essential part in many asanas. For example, when the lower back is straight, it transfers the body weight onto the sacrum, and the movement splits through the sacroiliac joints to both hips.
Then the hips are included in the movement chain. If this connection can not be appropriately performed, the hips become stiff. Although the joints that form the pelvis have tiny movements, the feeling of movement experienced in this area is mainly due to the release of muscle tension.
The mobility of the hips plays an essential role in this connection. The following exercises are done with bent knees to prevent tight hamstrings from interfering with the correct movement, as could happen in the downward-facing dog when you stretch your legs.
Critical Alignment Yoga has exercises designed to mobilize lower and upper vertebrae
•Stand in Utkatasana (chair pose) and place your hand on your knees. Make sure your lower back is straight.
There is a wrinkle where your thighs meet your abdomen. The mobility in your hips mainly depends on whether or not the hip flexors can relax. Keeping your body weight and balance on the front part of your heels, the hip flexors relax, and your pelvis will move.
•Your lower back is extended and transfers the movement to the pelvis, but the hip determines whether or not the movement can be accepted. In addition, when the hamstrings are tight, they block movement by pulling on the sit bones. Therefore, the hamstrings are essential for your pelvis and the lower back position.
•The release of your hamstrings will activate your quadriceps, stimulating the leg muscles’ strength.
•Slowly start stretching your legs without contracting your abdomen or bending your lower back. Try to remember to keep your lower ribs in their neutral position.
You can purchase the Critical Alignment Yoga Book in English here